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March 28, 2007

A Week in the Capitol


I’ve had mix of lazy days and seeing the tourist sites since I arrived in Phnom Penh 5 days ago.  The first two days I hit the major tourist sites; the Silver Pagoda, Royal Palace, National Museum, Tuol Sleng, and the Killing Fields.  The first three were fairly typical of what I’d seen so far.  The silver pagoda is a temple that has floor tiles made of silver, but they cover about 90% of them with carpets.  It also had many gold and jeweled Buddhas along with other gifts to the royal family.  The national museum contains many pieces from the temples at Angkor Wat that were either recovered from looters or put there to prevent them from being looted in the first place.

The next day of Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields were quite different.  The Cambodian government between 1975 and 79 was the Khmer regime who weren’t nice people.  It was a strictly controlled society.  Anyone who spoke against the regime or if they thought you did had broken the law and was dealt with harshly.  The worst of this was the secret police location S-21, which was a high school converted into an interrogation center.  Prisoners – men, women, and children – were all considered enemies of the state and any response which was not what the interrogators wanted to here was considered a lie and punished.  Eventually everyone would confess and be killed or killed during the interrogation.  Of the 20,000 people brought there in 5 years, seven survived.  All prisoners were photographed and had there life’s history taken upon admittance and photographed when they left to go to the killing fields.  These photographs were displayed on bulletin boards throughout the 4 buildings on several of the levels.  All black and white they were primarily the entry photos, but also some of the prisoners after they had been interrogated and beaten.  It was a very haunting place and seeing the conditions that they were kept in was very disturbing as it was meant to be.

When the interrogations was complete, they confessed to whatever they were supposed to, they would be transferred to the killing field about 15 miles away.  This was an area in the country surrounded by crops.  Upon arrival the people were immediately beaten to death (to save bullets) and put into mass graves.  Eventually the number of arrivals became so great that a holding room was built where they would be for 1 or 2 days.

A speaker would blare propaganda at full volume 24 hours per day so that the neighbors could not hear all of the screaming and moaning and become aware of what was taking place.  Now some of the graves have been exhumed to document what was done and treat the bodies properly.  A number of the skulls have been placed inside a temple built onsite for that purpose.  The temple is about 50 feet high and maybe 12 foot square on the inside.  These skulls are inside there on a wooden rack built from the floor to ceiling with glass sides so that you can see the number of remains that have been found.

Since then its been fairly slow while I’ve been waiting for a package of medicines to show up from my parents.  Each day I was hoping it would show up, but keeps getting delayed because of the contents.  I went to the Seeing Hands Massage place and had a massage by a blind person and one afternoon I took a photography class.  The class talked about the different camera functions for a couple of hours and then about how to photograph people when you are traveling in different countries.  

After that we went out to a market to put it into practice.  There were just two of us and the teacher so it was great to get to ask lots of questions and get some feedback on the photos.  It was much different for me taking the pictures of all the people and also feeling that I had to take photos of things that I normally had been walking right by.  I’m glad I did it and hopefully will get some chances to use what I learned as the trip goes on.

Speaking of which I’ve decided to get out of Phnom Penh for a week and hope that the package gets here by then.  If not, well I’ll figure that out then.  I’ve decided to head to the beach on the south coast for a few days and then east of here to a place where you can often see freshwater dolphins in the river.  There aren’t many places with these dolphins left and this is supposed to be the area with the most so I better do it now while I have the chance.

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